Doping in the modern age Inspire article

How science is trying to keep up with the cheats

Sports doping is in the news and in our minds as we gear up for the Rio Olympics next month. At the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Manchester this week, I got to learn about some of the tests that will be used to try and catch any cheating competitors.

The use of anabolic steroids is what first comes to mind when I think of sports doping, and that is still the most commonly used chemical, with the hormone erythropoietin (EPO) just behind. But while tests for these hormones are getting more and more sensitive, science doesn’t stop.

Gene doping, could be the next big challenge.

Gene doping mimics gene therapy, where genes are transferred into cells to correct genetic disorders. But rather than treating patients for diseases, genes could be added to an athlete’s genome to enhance their athletic performance.

Injected EPO has been detectable for years, but if athletes boosted their natural EPO production using gene doping, the body’s manufactured supply would just show up as natural.

Since banning gene doping in 2003, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has devoted significant resources and research to detection of gene doping. For the first time, there will be a test for it at Rio, by looking for tell tale fingerprints of genetic transfer. A variety of approaches are used, including detecting fragments of genes or gene transfer vectors that have leaked into the blood, or finding subtle differences between natural and non-natural proteins. Then we will know if anyone is using genetic doping.

Overall, explains Arne Ljungqvist, doping is much less prevalent now than in the 1980s. Not only are tests becoming more and more sensitive, but, he says, you can see the change in the results at more modern Olympics. For example, the gold medallists at London 2012 would not have been stood on the podium at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Arne’s panel member Mike McNamee of Swansea University, UK, strongly believes that science alone cannot tackle the problem. Doping is complex and multidisciplinary, and science and ethics must go hand in hand.

But one area we really don’t know enough about, he adds, is the recreational doping of amateur athletes or people who just want to ‘bulk up’ at the gym. Doping has switched from being a problem related to athletes, to one of public concern. There is no reliable data to tell us how big the problem is but anecdotally we know it is happening, adds Mike.

In some countries in Europe testing of gym goers has happened, but there are ethical questions around testing members of the public without evidence that they have done anything wrong, as Mike discussed. Instead, he says, to counter ‘amateur doping’ and keep people safe a concerted effort needs to be made to educate people about its risks.

As we get excited for the Olympics, you can find out more on the science behind sports with our collection of sports related articles here.

We’ll be publishing more updates from ESOF this week, and for more immediate updates, follow us on twitter.